Sunday, January 29, 2012

John Vanderlyn: Panorama of Versailles

John Vanderlyn spent his later years whipping out his wares for anyone who'd take a look at them. I love the idea of him as a sort of Nineteenth Century Tall Grass artist pimping for cash like some itinerant rough tradesman. I'm not sure why that appeals to me. Maybe because the back-story injects a bit of life into work that's a bit stale and dry otherwise.

Things weren't always rough for him, though. Upon seeing Vanderlyn's copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait, Aaron Burr pledged to pay any expenses necessary for the young artist "to cultivate his genius to [the] highest point of Perfection." Well that's quite a difference of opinion from his write-up in Appleton's Cyclopedia, which called his work "hardly more than respectable." Ouch.

[On a side note: Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography was the original Wikipedia. Museum Of Hoaxes claims that, out of the thousands of biographies at least 200 have been found to be false. The entries were not checked for content. Sounds familiar, ahem].

Vanderlyn's panorama at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Time Magazine, upon the installation of the mural into it's current location at the Met, called it "one of the biggest, most elaborate and most thoroughly forgotten paintings in American history." 

At 165 feet in length and some 3,000 square feet of canvas, you might expect it to have more of a presence. It's cold neo-Classical style is partly to blame. It's more of a mathematical exercise in visual perspective than painting, and it's telling that the most flattering adjective Time came up with to describe it was "big".

His portrait paintings had fallen flat commercially, so he turned to painting grand panoramas (including Paris, Athens and Mexico), the only surviving example of which is this panorama of Versailles in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This project was no different to his others and never made money, embroiling Vanderlyn in money problems with Burr (among others) for many years.

“The whole history of Vanderlyn’s life from that period to 1836 is a record of straits and struggles, repeated efforts and disappointments, and cruel injustice withal,” wrote a sympathetic (historian) Benjamin Myer Brink. “It is enough to say that the entanglements of the rotunda and kindred panorama projects were fatal to his peace and paralyzed his pencil.” [source]

The artist depicted himself pointing out Czar Alexander I and King Frederick William II of Prussia to the right of the Basin de Latone (above).

"The painting was originally intended for display in the Rotunda built by Vanderlyn in 1818 at the northeast corner of City Hall Park in New York. Its showing there was not as successful as Vanderlyn had wished. In search of some profit, Vanderlyn toured intermittently with the panorama until his death." [Met]

He died in 1952, a block-and-a-half from where he was born, a broken and embittered man. His grave at Wiltwyck Cemetary lay neglected for years. He did receive something of a eulogy from Brink some years later, who called him “a man of genius, an artist of renown, an honor to his country, (who) achieved broad and enduring fame.” Kind of a lie really, but nice of him to say.


  1. how cool that his name is even known when so many other murals of the same period went unsigned. now i want to see this behemoth!

  2. I was thinking the same thing after I wrote that post. It's interesting how history judges people. I'd love to have a 165 painting hanging in the Met! It's not ever going to happen, but does that make me a loser? Don't answer that.

  3. I've always been intrigued by panaramas, and the interesting pesonality who would create one. I was at the Metropolitan last year and missed this! How is that possible? A sidenote of interest — did you know the inventor of photography, Daguerre, started out as a panarama artist?